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Karen Grill, what’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing behind the bar?

on 01/07/16 at 11:24 am

a woman walks into a bar..., Booze News

KarenGSince I drink for a living, I meet a lot of people in the booze world, particularly bartenders because, ‘hellooo’, they are generally the ones serving the booze – sometimes at a bar, sometimes at an event. As customers, we walk in and take a seat at a bar, we order a drink and chitchat with the bartender a bit. If you’re a regular, the bartender oftentimes doubles as your therapist and ends up knowing you, perhaps, a little too well. Even schmoozing innocently can end up with us revealing TMI, so it’s likely the bartender knows more about us than we do about them. And that is just not right. I aim to correct that with my series of bartender interviews because bartenders are people, too.

Today we meet a whirling dervish who slings drinks faster than a speeding bullet, that fast-talker with the lush red hair, Karen Grill! This awesome boss bartender’s enviable resume includes: General Manager and Beverage Director at Sassafras, has been behind top bars at Bestia, Playa, Sotto and Melrose Umbrella Co. And now, she can be found, in any one week, guest bartending at multiple hot bars around town as well as putting together cocktails for the Pacific Seas Tiki Bar at Clifton’s.

We sat down one afternoon over coffee of all things, not even day-drinking (it happens) at the Melrose Umbrella Co., a très cool bar on Melrose. Karen is all business who takes her work very seriously and I was most appreciative that she took the time to chat.

“How the hell did a nice Jewish girl like you end up being a bartender?!” As it happens, very circuitously. Karen was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish family where ‘drinking’ was Manischewitz at Passover and maybe a little schnapps at a bris, but cocktails? Not so much.

Lakewood on the Jersey shore is home to the largest Orthodox Jewish community outside of Brooklyn and appropriately referred to as Little Jerusalem. There, Orthodox Jews pretty much live in a bubble – a Twilight Zone you might say – and there’s not much interaction with the outside world. Karen did not exactly fit in. At her all-girls Sephardic high school, she was considered “too American,” too outside Orthodox expectations. By their sixteenth birthdays, girls were already supposed to be focused on raising a family but not Karen. She was looked at as a weird-o for wearing band t-shirts and purple streaks in her hair. Yeah, normal to us but nuts to them. Proving that she was “too American,” Karen’s first act of rebellion was refusing to take classes that taught girls how to be a good traditional wife and mother. A life of domesticity and the tenets of Orthodoxy, while Karen respected them, didn’t make much sense to her as there was a whole world out there to explore. Today, not surprisingly, she’s the only one from her class not married with children.

While waiting to get married as soon as possible, the Orthodox girls from the wealthy families ran around in their cool new cars, Sweet Sixteen presents that offered them a final flurry of freedom. Instead, Karen worked as a waitress after school at a beach café where she saw plenty of the alluring outside world. Working there also helped her develop a strong work ethic that has never left her. Knowing that staying within the confines of the Orthodox community was not an option for her, Karen left home at eighteen to go to the University of Rhode Island on a full scholarship. She eventually left URI for Boston, where she attended Emerson College. There she majored in music and graduated Summa Cum Laude. Not bad for an Orthodox Jersey Girl!

Karen’s enthusiasm for the bar business is evident and I wanted to know why she loves bartending and the hospitality biz so much. “I love talking to strangers! It’s the best part of the job!” And she loves the sense of community. Her sensitivity to being part of a community started right at conception as she shared a womb with another human being – her twin sister! So the need for connection is part of her DNA. No, her sister is not identical. And not a cocktalian. Jessica Grill forged a wholly different path…also one outside their Orthodox community. Jesse works at the Philadelphia zoo as an educator, is a professional archer and makes handmade traditional archery equipment. You can find her beautiful work on etsy at Warpath Archery and her Facebook page. Two more siblings round out the Grill family: an older brother – educator, teacher and “fantastic drummer” who lives in New Jersey – and her younger bro who is also out in L.A. following the beaten path of thousands, chasing the California dream.

Back to Boston for a minute. Here is what the Farmers’ Almanac says about Boston in winter: “Nor’easter storms translate to heavy rainfall, snow, and freezing temperatures. Boston has experienced some of the top blizzards in the past century.” Oy, that last blizzard did it. Karen had enough of freezing her tuches*. L.A. beckoned with sand, sun and welcoming come hither palm trees. She landed in L.A. in 2010, right after Halloween. And, boy, did she get lucky. Very lucky. Within just a couple of weeks, bartender Chris Bostick introduced her to Julian Cox, the famed L.A. cocktail guru who has launched practically every bartender still standing. Julian was just about to launch a new bartender training program, which incidentally, has since become the standard for anyone wanting to be in the hospitality business. Karen was accepted into the program and started the course cold, a newbie, who didn’t know a cocktail shaker from a bar spoon. Since then, that has all changed. Karen has won more cocktail competitions than you can shake a shaker at. Her hospitality and bartender training have made her a sought after manager and she’s created bar programs at many of L.A.’s hot/cool bars.

I’m fascinated by how bartenders create their bespoke cocktails. Is there a cocktail whisperer who flits from bar to bar like Tinker Bell divining new cocktails and sprinkling spirits dust on busy bartenders? Maybe, maybe not. If music were a language, Karen speaks it. She thinks in music and builds her cocktails like a musical composition, paying attention to tempo and syncopation until it all comes together like a beautiful song. As a history buff, Karen loves the history of cocktails and her respect for those cocktails influences her creativity.

Early in her pre-cocktail life, a seminal experience made her realize the importance of each ingredient in building a drink. The first chef Karen worked for, Michael Scelfo, then at The Russell House in Cambridge, MA, taught her a critical lesson – do not fall asleep at the wheel. One night, he quizzed her on the ingredients that were in one of the dishes he was serving. OMG, she failed miserably and Chef got red-faced mad, berating her, “You should KNOW this.” Service stopped as he sat her down to explain why knowing what each ingredient was, how they complemented each other, what the dish meant and why it was all so damn important. That moment was an epiphany. Not to be too dramatic but one thing became absolutely clear…Karen understood that each and every thing on that plate represented the chef’s choices, his vision and his life as a chef. Everything had meaning and was meant to ‘blissify’ the palate. That dish was a duck confit. The crucial lesson Karen learned from chef Michael Scelfo that day at his restaurant was that 1. hospitality is a serious business and 2. serve the best damn dish or drink you can make. This credo informs the way she manages her teams and how she creates her cocktails…strive for, and demand, the best!

Me: “So where do you go from here? What else do you want to do?” Karen: “No place else. I’m a lifer. Provided my body holds out, of course!” She unabashedly loves the bar business even with all the occupational hazards of shake, shake shaking a million times a night, standing on your feet for 8 -12 hours, bending, twisting, lifting heavy cases of booze. Bartending is an exhausting, exhilarating painful full-body workout and the sheer physicality of being a bartender often results in injuries so it’s a good thing Karen’s dad is a cardiologist and her mom’s a nurse so she can always go home for some love and medical attention.

Today, Karen is an attaché with the Bon Vivants, a nationally recognized cocktail, hospitality, marketing and design firm, as a brand ambassador for Rutte Gins and Genever and Mandarine Napoléon. As long as the cocktail gods shine on her, she will be behind the stick. Thank goodness Karen was considered “too American” growing up in an Othodox community or she might never have left it for the big, wide wonderful world and we would never be the beneficiaries of her bountiful talent.

Now, you must go and have a real Karen Grill bespoke cocktail which you can be sure is made with a hefty dose of love and music and infused with all the experiences that brought her to this point in time making you a special cocktail. Say “Hi!” at the Melrose Umbrella Co., sit back – she loves to schmooze – and enjoy!

* tuches: Yiddish for backside or bum

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